For members of Nova Scotia’s historic Black communities, learning to surf is a way of healing the wounds of segregation and embracing the future.
Text — Nzingha Millar
Photos — Carolina Andrade
Video — Mirror Image Media
This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.
Halifax, Nova Scotia is a city with two shores and two bridges. Before I could form a sentence, I could say “water.” Having a child who was drawn to the ocean both impressed and petrified my mother. As soon as I could walk she registered me in swimming lessons, which continued until she could confidently say that I swam well enough to save my life.
East Coasters never cease to boast of our pristine beaches. In tourism ads, we entice the woefully landlocked to visit Nova Scotia by declaring it “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” If you live here long enough the ocean becomes an old acquaintance, one you think you know, but never too well.
My mother grew up near water, in the segregated Black community of Lake Loon. The close-knit community is part of the historic Preston Township, settled by free Black Loyalists, Black Refugees of the War of 1812 and Jamaican Maroons. The Township is home to three other distinct Black settlements: Cherry Brook, East Preston, and North Preston—Canada’s largest Black community by concentration. Hers was one of the only families allowed to swim at the lake, a concession sanctioned by its white gatekeepers and afforded by my grandfather’s occupation as their trusted furnace oil delivery man.
Perhaps this little-known history of Nova Scotia’s entanglement with slavery and segregation gets at the root of why so many of the faces represented in those East Coast ads were monochromatic in skin tone. As a Black girl I was being taught that the Nova Scotian experience didn’t belong to me.
“Why do you like to do dangerous things?” my mother’s eyes widened when I announced to her this summer that I would be taking surfing lessons with the North Preston Swim to Surf Program. Her fear was mixed heavily with love, emotions that go hand in hand for Black moms.
For my mother’s generation, water was a thing to be “used”—for fishing, for baptizing, to be boiled before drinking. It could “take you” if you were not careful, especially if you were the only dark face in a crowd of swimmers. The water once carried the promise of me with my ancestors on ships across the Atlantic, away from their homeland. Surfing is an opportunity to reclaim the water, to reimagine this relationship for ourselves and generations to come.
The North Preston Swim to Surf program runs on the energy of its dedicated team of instructors and volunteers. What began as a pilot project in 2019 to increase the representation of melanated surfers became a full-fledged summer program, now in its second year. Participants range in age from toddlers to adults in their forties.
The program is a partnership between North Preston’s Blxckhouse, a future-focused youth community, and the Surfing Association of Nova Scotia (SANS). LaMeia Reddick (Blxckhouse) and Beth Amiro (NSSA) are the program’s visionaries. Operating at no cost to participants, their objective is to remove barriers for Black youth to experience the water on their own terms. When I asked Reddick about her future vision of the program, she put it simply: “Freedom. Breaking free from the traditional norms of what we can and can’t do.”
Surfing is an exercise in autonomy. When the right wave approaches, it’s up to you to commit to taking it on. You have to decide then and there, in a matter of seconds, what your body will do. Otherwise, the water will decide for you. I’ve been knocked off my board, submerged under the churning white water, and each time one of the program’s amazing instructors encouraged me to get back up and try again.
As I raised my head above the waves to trade salt for air, I realized that if our children can learn to take on the water, they can take on the world. They will be unstoppable.
Recently, surfers involved in the program organized a “paddle out” in support of Black Lives Matter. The ceremony, which stems from Hawaiian funeral tradition, took nearly 100 surfers out to Martinique Beach, a 40-minute drive from North Preston. There they formed a circle in the middle of the ocean where they laid flowers in memory of the lives stolen, saying the names of victims like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Together they let out a cathartic cry that echoed over the shore. The water, once a site of our pain, was transformed into a place of healing.
My last day at Swim to Surf, I paddled out and sat on my board, watching the younger surfers practice. The parents and caretakers had driven the windy, fog-laden road to bring them there. They hovered, knelt, and pulled the skin of wetsuits over their limbs, doused them in bug repellent, and released them to the water like a flock of baby seals.
As the sky cleared, I observed as a mother on the shore watched intently as a little girl in a bright white swim cap played on a flutterboard along the shore. Her intense gaze only broke when it caught mine. I smiled, as I realized almost immediately that what I was witnessing was trust: not of the water but of the future. She would be ready for this life, to take on the big waves.
Nzingha Millar is a writer and community mobilizer from Halifax Nova Scotia. Aside from her public relations day job, Nzingha finds herself exploring her love of ideas and stories that reveal why things are the way they are. Her summers are for getting out of her head and into the outdoors, the only place she truly feels unbound.